By Helen Young and Geoff Boucher
On 26 February this year, members of the extreme-Right group Atomwaffen Division in the United States were arrested on charges of conspiracy to commit acts of terrorism. Alongside plans for the intimidation of journalists, including death threats, the group aimed to weaponise the coronavirus, maintaining that it was the “obligation” of white supremacists to spread it. That idea originates within the siege culture mentality of “accelerationism,” the notion that the destruction of liberal civilisation should be hastened by terrorism. Accelerationist neo-Nazis, such as the members of Atomwaffen Division, believe that if they do not, the “Zionist Occupation Government” (ZOG), the US government as a Jewish-controlled puppet regime, intends the extermination of the “white race”. Within the twisted intellectual space of the extreme Right, then, their terrorism is actually the beginning of armed patriotic resistance, against a genocidal secret government that is backed by military force.
The online gaming platform Steam, run by Valve Corporation, until recently, hosted a group that also called itself Atomwaffen Division. The themes of the Steam-based group included the swastika icon, the “racial displacement of the white race” by “Jewish oligarchies and globalist bankers,” and the need for National Socialism. Its homepage included links to the website of Atomwaffen Division (the real neo-Nazi group) and Atomwaffen Division’s Youtube channel (now taken down). It therefore claimed affiliation to the terror group.
It is impossible for us to say whether the player profiles on the Steam AWD the same people as the terrorists of AWD, but it is possible to follow up the player profiles on the Steam platform. Some are gone, but some are not. At least some have migrated into another Steam group, “Odin statt Jesus!” [German for “Odin instead of Jesus!”]. The new group is a blank. All information about it is withheld. Its members’ player profiles shows that they prefer images of German stormtroopers. It seems to be one among many hate groups in gaming spaces reported over the past several years. In 2018, Steam moderators took down the Atomwaffen Division group’s homepage, alongside school shooter groups, profiles and games. Then, on 9 December 2019, Steam removed 30 profiles and groups that used the swastika or other Nazi symbols, such as “SS”. But the 21 volunteer moderators and 13 staff moderators evidently struggle to deal with the tide of hate-related content on a platform that had 1 billion player accounts and 90 million active monthly users in 2019, according to Forbes.
That number has grown during the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic, with new records being set from the beginning of the coronavirus lockdown. And the hate-related content has not gone away, either, despite the moderators’ increased vigilance. An informal review on 15-16 August 2020 on Steam revealed 48 profiles and groups with positive references to fascism; derogatory references to Jewish people; themes related to the Illuminati, the New World Order, and the ZOG; connections between paganism and Hitler; and “NazBol”—Nazi-Bolshevik—groups. On the whole, though, openly neo-Nazi groups are rare, as are profiles with any public content whatsoever. A similar review four months earlier found an order of magnitude more. Faced with bans from the moderators, the hate has gone underground. The new tactic of the extremists is to generate transient groups and servers, such as “ValveBan” on Steam, or “Speedrun to Get Banned: Vetting” on Discord, whose stated purpose is to direct traffic to “the main server”. That is possibly an innocuously named server with hate-based content, or perhaps a reference to hidden sites and encrypted chats.
What is the link between computer gaming and hate-based ideologies? Is it the imaginary performance of killing? Or is it a consequence of loneliness and alienation, leading to the desire for revenge against society? That is what is suggested, for instance, by the Steam group “The Mamoon Network,” a “blackpilled channel for lonely incels”. There are numerous factors at play, but one of them, we suggest, is the ecosystem of narratives that normalise violent individual action and representation of society as the arena for a shadowy war against conspiratorial forces that is the connection.
The “root war metaphor” characterises extremist narratives, with references to historical violence used to inspire and justify contemporary violence. For instance, Brenton Tarrant inscribed dates of medieval battles and martial figures on the guns he used in his accelerationist terror attack and in his manifesto. The past is transformed into a moment of glory that must be regained to prevent civilizational disintegration in the present, and history becomes a permanent war where puppet-figures enact the designs of shadowy enemies. The point about seeing history as a permanent war against proxy regimes is that it is polarising. The war is always happening. You are with us, or against us. Nobody is innocent.
The permanent war is orchestrated by conspiracy. Now, the relevant point about conspiracy narratives here is not just that they are false, but that part of their falseness is that they reduce history and society to the actions of small numbers of powerful people—them, and us. The Atomwaffen Division group on Steam proclaimed that “we wish to appeal to the radical in this struggle, as it is the radical that etches their place into history”. Notice the use of the singular: the radical. Conspiracy thinking and vigilante violence are flipsides of the same lone gunman coin. The differences between the “powerful elites” and the lonely, angry figure are knowledge, and organisation. The conspiracy narrative provides the information that transmutes an isolated individual into someone who “etches their place into history”. The extremist organisation supplies the means of destruction that turn a potential vigilante into a mass murderer.
So, where is it that an extremist organisation looking for potential recruits might turn, when it seeks to radicalise a vigilante mentality into a violent ‘lone actor’? One answer seems obvious. It is not difficult to find innumerable computer games, historical, contemporary and near-future alike, from Assassins Creed to Secret Government, where a lone vigilante of exceptional abilities battles the proxy forces of a sinister conspiracy. Some of the Atomwaffen profiles were connected with first-person shooter games that involve a second, contemporary or future, civil war in the USA, such as Homefront, Deus Ex and Freedom Fighters.
The storylines of Deus Ex and Deus Ex: Invisible War have terrifying implications in the context of the SARS-CoV2 pandemic. In Deus Ex a sinister global conspiracy organised by pro-Enlightenment forces unleashes a bioweapon—a pandemic—that lets them begin a secretive takeover of the American state. In Invisible War, the global depression that results from the bioweapon’s pandemic triggers a pro-global military regime in the US that American patriots resist by mounting an armed insurgency against the state and the US Army. Already, the “infodemic” that has obstructed efforts to fight SARS-CoV2 has prominently featured the falsehood that the virus originated from a bioweapons lab in Wuhan and that China, using the WHO, deliberately unleashed the virus to cause a global depression. Furthermore, these conspiracy narratives have been grafted onto existing right-wing conspiracy narratives involving the Clintons and George Soros, thus embedding the new conspiracy story in a cultural context within which it gains plausibility and intelligibility. According to Der Spiegel, although much of the disinformation around medical solutions to CoViD-19 emerges from near the Kremlin, the “Chinese/WHO bioweapon/depression conspiracy” emanates from the USA. It is plausible, though not yet verified, that the alt-Right and the militia organisations are a key source of this propaganda which has been widely spread by right-wing media, personalities and politicians. In Australia, the ABC has reported that the far-right has actively and publicly blamed China for coronavirus and is promoting such theories to recruit new members.
We know from research into the connections between the alt-Right and the militias in the USA and Australia that gaming environments like Steam have provided fertile recruitment grounds for the neo-fascists. The Deus Ex and Deus Ex: Invisible War storylines closely resemble the cult neo-fascist book that inspires the neo-Nazi hate organisations: William Pierce’s The Turner Diaries (1974) (published under the pseudonym Andrew MacDonald). The story involves white armed resistance to a pseudo-democratic—ultimately totalitarian—pro-black federal government. It imagines a new civil war, against the backdrop of both government bio-conspiracies and the terrorists’ use of bioweapons, in which the Southern and Midwestern states eventually triumph. A 2016 International Centre for Counter-Terrorism report on the impact of the book observes that “the dystopian genre often plays a significant role as propaganda shaping both radical and mainstream politics” (p. 4). Indeed, the report notes that The Turner Diaries was part of the radicalisation of the Oklahoma City Bomber, Timothy McVeigh, who had with him on the day of the bombing a dossier explaining his motivations with photocopied pages from the book. The report goes on to suggest that the “rising popularity of dystopian fiction as a mainstream genre may further encourage future extremist ventures in this space” (p, 42).
It is clear that this is already happening, with new entries updating The Turner Diaries to bring the dystopian and conspiratorial vision into line with emergent fascist groups. Harold Covington, an American neo-Nazi, for instance, articulates an extremist fantasy of violent political action in novels such as The Brigade (2008). Set in an imagined near future, the Pacific Northwest rebels against the disastrous totalitarian rule of President Hillary Clinton, aiming to become a white ethnostate. Covington’s vision closely aligns, as the Southern Poverty Law Centre report recently observed, with the ideals of fascist group, The Base. Tellingly, The Base shares its Latin motto with Covington’s imagined Northwest Volunteer Army: “Ex Gladio Libertas” (Freedom comes from the sword). Likewise, Billy Roper, an American neo-Nazi and member of Pierce’s National Alliance, also writes ‘near-future’ fiction that imagines race war and a white ethnostate in America.
In the resonance between The Turner Diaries (and its imitations) and dystopian conspiracy games such as Deus Ex (and its many sequels), the links between conspiracy narratives and permanent warfare become exciting entertainment—as well as rightwing propaganda. But there have been at least two decades of conspiracy narratives among videogame mainstream hits and cult classics. Deus Ex takes place in a dystopian near future, while the Assassin’s Creed franchise encompass a millennia of historical settings. And these games are all about combining knowledge about the conspiratorial enemy with amassing the means of destruction that let the lone protagonist triumph over the regime’s drones. The common features of play in computer games, such as exploring a new world to reveal its secrets and playing a heroic character fighting against the odds and the system, when they happen in rightwing dystopian conspiracy settings, gamify rightwing radicalisation.
The alignment between major mainstream productions and extremist propaganda, exemplified in the Deus Ex franchise, and the use of videogame spaces for recruitment, give pause for thought. Videogames alone do not radicalise individuals and turn them to violence – even those games that engage directly with current political paranoias and conspiracy theories. But they do provide models for violent action from individuals. Lone protagonists fighting corruption among the powerful and secret conspiracies offer imagined heroic narratives that can map easily onto violent ‘lone actor’ terrorism of the kind commonly espoused by accelerationist militias.
Videogames can also introduce and normalise the idea that the world is secretly manipulated by corruption, collusion and control among powerful elites. Gaming contexts such as Deus Ex and other conspiracy narratives provide a cultural environment within which these stories flourish. Even when the links are not direct or deliberate, normalisation of narratives of secret corruption and collusion among the powerful lends credence to disinformation and creates a cultural environment that welcomes extremist narratives. When they intersect with rising authoritarian politics, they can gesture towards violent action. Conspiracy narratives, whether produced by extremist figures or in the mainstream, can expound and normalise extremist ideas.